Arab American Women: Representation and Refusal
Edited by Michael W. Suleiman, Suad Joseph and Louise Cainkar
Syracuse University Press, 2021
In addition to Suad Joseph’s tribute to Suleiman and her historical overview of this diverse and “relatively new interdisciplinary field engaging gender and women studies” as well as geographical and racial studies, Suleiman’s opening essay gives a historical background in “A Brief History of Arab American Women, 1890s to World War II.” Suleiman records the history of Arab American women, highlighting their contribution to the Arab American press by including some of their own writings that contributed to debates of their push for education, employment primarily as peddlers and the challenges of assimilation while simultaneously maintaining their culture.
Part two, “The Vanguard Generation,” contains four essays and fascinating facts on the female peddlers – certainly a historical novel waiting to be written and this collection would be the place to start research. Jess Bier’s article on “Mapping the Archive for Arab American Women’s Labor in the New York Metropolitan Area, 1880-1930” examines the power relations and the controversy over female peddling being outlawed in some states and seen as more appropriate than male peddlers in others as well as the female factory workers, salesclerks and lastly performers as ‘belly dancers.” In “Keeping Us Lebanese,” Amy E. Rowe looks at the 35% of unmarried second-generation Lebanese women in New England who “creatively and subversively embedded their own vision of Lebanese-ness within their white Yankee American-ness” through the church and their cooking. As a follow up, Gregory Orfalea shares his memories of his four paternal unmarried aunts, upper class mid-western Syrian working women, and later his mother’s touching care of the four elderly spinsters. Charlotte Karem Albrecht returns to the female peddlers, a gender distinction of Syrian peddlers from the male Jewish Ashkenazi and Bengali Muslims peddlers. Through the scrutiny of social welfare workers, Albrecht illustrates how “dominant ideas about gender and sexuality, expressed through work and class position, are at the root of Arab American racialization.”
Part three contains three essays on literature from the early 1900s to today. In her article “From Lebanon to Louisiana, Afifa Karam and Arab Women’s Writing in the Diaspora,” Sarah M. A. Gualtieri resurrects the contribution of Karam, a child bride from Lebanon who became a vocal feminist, journalist and novelist. In her innovative “Transfigurations, Homespace in Two Arab American Women’s Novel,” Lisa Suhair Majaj explores “the idea of home in the self: a space shaped by cultural, political, social, religious, familial, gendered, and geographical factors” in the novels “The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf” by Mohja Kahf and Randa Jarrar’s “A Map of Home.” For Majaj, Kahf’s novel asks how one “can negotiate difference without acquiescing to assimilationist trajectories,” and Jarrar’s novel creates a third choice “beyond the classic immigrant dilemma of preservation versus assimilation: a diasporic identity, flexible and negotiable, that finds home in the moment of being.” Mejdulane B. Shomali in “Scheherazade and the Limits of Inclusive Politics in Arab American Literature” looks extensively at three contemporary texts that evoke Scheherazade as a means to appear “authentically ‘Arab’ in order to maintain difference and be included in the multicultural spectrum” while still opening the way to new creative narratives. Yet Shomali warns that “Scheherazade is not only a metaphor for the inclusion of Arabs in America but also a symbol that excludes queers from Arab identification” and tends to demonize Arab males.
The fourth section, “Activism, Political,” begins with Carol Haddad’s detailed history of “Second Wave Arab American Feminist Activism, The Story of the Feminist Arab-American Network.” Her own efforts to form the Feminist Arab American Network worked to make themselves “visible in the feminist community,” to be inclusive of lesbians and to stand against the racism of pro-Israeli efforts to silence the effects of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In her refreshing “Daughters of Fatima, Iraqi Shi’a Women in the United States,” Bridget Blomfield dismantles the stereotype of the docile Muslim female by pointing out their attraction to America’s promise of religious freedom. For these women, their “expression of piety is not a passive existence or a form of resistance: it offers them the opportunity to self-define and develop spiritually.” Nadine Naber picks up her pen to protest Israeli “pink-washing” and cites the case of Rasmea Odeh as evidence of America’s “expanding racist-heterosexist prison industrial complex” as she urges “An Anti-imperialist Transnational Approach” to scholarship and activism. Umayyah Cable’s interview with Scholar-Activist Elaine Hagopian in “Forging Her Own Path,” recounts Hagopian’s efforts to acquire an education and her later work with Ibrahim Abu-Lughod and Naseer Aruri to create the Arab American University Graduates. The inspiring essays in this section remind the reader of the importance of the individual contribution to the community and the effectiveness of solidarity.
In part five, “Representations,” Suad Joseph meticulously examines the “Arab American Gender Representations in the New York Times, 1851-1919” during the early period of immigration when “reporters were trying to map the peoples who came to occupy parts of New York City.” The ambivalence and often contradictory representations of Arab American women as both insiders and outsiders provides a “devastating critique of Orientalism” rather than “assumptions of the unbroken continuity of past into the present.” In her fascinating “Evoking Sympathy for the Muslim Woman after 9/11,” Evelyn Alsultany discusses the attack against Muslim women represented as veiled, oppressed and in need of rescue” which in turn becomes part of the war narrative, creating “a monolithic portrait of Islam that is then easily mobilized by the government to justify U.S. intervention in Muslim countries.” The demonization of Muslim men sets the background for representations out of Abu Ghraib which never published images of Iraqi women prisoners being tortured. Alsultany continues to deftly illustrate that “simplified complex representations do not necessarily challenge stereotypes; more often than not, they affirm them in the guise of cultural sensitivity.”
Drawing on popular culture, Amira Jarmakani unpacks the paradigm of desert romances in “Desert is Just Another Word for Freedom.” Desert romances offer entertainment and cultural reaffirmation with a gender twist to the rescue structure of “the magical union of the sheik hero and the liberal-enlightened white heroine.” All three of these essays with their sharpened academic methodology clearly cut through the hypocrisy of white liberalism that not only provides cover for racism but actually reinforces it.
The last section on “War and National Security” contains three essays that document the aftermath of 9/11 on Arab American women. In “Ethnic Citizenship in a Time of Crisis, Lebanese American Women in the War of 2006,” Rita Stephan charts the bureaucratic and emotional complications of her own experience and those of other Lebanese American women who returned to Lebanon with their children for a summer vacation and found themselves fleeing a war armed with their American passports. Louise Cainkar documents the alarming rise of racists’ attacks against veiled women in the Chicago area in “Dangerous Women/Women in Danger, Gendered Impacts of Hate and Repression, 9/11 and Beyond.” Cainkar pinpoints the erroneous perception of the hijab as the “rejection of freedom” exposing the “notion that one cannot be American and Arab or Muslim at the same time.” Theresa Saliba ends the collection with a stern essay “Gendering the Security State, Family and Community Impacts of Arab Detentions in the Northwest United States.” Some readers may be surprised that “by April 14, the Obama administration had surpassed two million deportations, exceeding deportations under the previous Bush administration.” These deportations of the innocent deny these fathers the “right to protect their families” and collectively punish the remaining women and children. Saliba warns that women themselves are not exempted from the injustices of the industrialization of American security and stresses the urgency of community activism.
As a lasting and inspiring memorial to the trail blazing work of Michael Suleiman, each one of these nineteen essays contributes to the collective community of Arab Americans and to broader scholarship on immigration, ethnic and gender studies. I cannot emphasize enough how reading this collection resonated on so many levels with my own family history and the validation of just holding this collection in my hands as a scholar and as an Arab American woman. Certainly, “Arab American Women: Representation and Refusal,” which offers so many resources for the young scholar, belongs on the shelf in any American library or on the bookshelf of Arab American homes.
Copyright © 2022 by Al Jadid
Copyright © 2022 by Al Jadid